Mathematical Modeling of Honeybee Populations in Heterogeneous Environments: Linking Disease Parasite Nutrition Behavior

Project: Research project

Project Details


Overview: The honeybee, Apis mellifera, is not only crucial in maintaining biodiversity by pollinating 85%
plant species but also is the most economically valuable pollinator of agricultural crops worldwide with
value between $15 and $20 billion annually as commercial pollinators in the U.S. Unfortunately, the recent
sharp declines in honeybee population have been considered a global crisis caused by parasitic Varroa mites
(Varroa destructor Anderson and Trueman). Varroa parasitize immature and adult bees. Stress from
parasitism shortens the life of adult workers. The mites also transmit deadly viruses that can reduce brood
survival and cause adult that were parasitized during development to have developmental deformities and
compromised cognitive function particularly learning and memory. Consequently, infected foragers might
be more likely to drift to other colonies which facilitates parasitism and virus infection across a larger spatial
scale, especially under nutritional stress. Mathematical models have begun to provide insights on ecological
processes and important factors that contribute to the mortality of honeybees. However, the existing models,
without validation and parameterization with data, are either detailed simulation models that are
mathematically untrackable or over simplified models lacking essential biological components.
Mathematically tractable/novel models that have a better alignment with data are needed to unfold the
mystery of the dramatic decline in honeybee populations and for developing control strategies for Varroa
that reduce colony losses.
Intellectual Merit: This collaborative research between Kang from Arizona State University and
DeGrandi-Hoffman from Carl Hayden Bee Research Center fosters a culture of theory-experiment
collaboration with aims to develop realistic and mathematically tractable models that will be validated and
parameterized using field data. Our collaboration will enable us to study the integrated effects of disease,
parasitism, nutrition and behavior in changing environments and the effects on honeybee colony mortality
across multiscale in time and space. The PIs will investigate: 1. How parasite migration into colonies via
foragers from other hives located at different landscape structures could affect the honeybee-parasite
population dynamics with stage structures. 2. How the honeybee-parasite-virus interactions with the
honeybee foraging behavior in seasonal environments cause colony losses. 3. How the crucial feedback
mechanisms linking disease, parasitism, nutrient and honeybee foraging behavior might be responsible for
the colony growth dynamics and survival in a dynamical environment with multilevel spatial components.
The PIs will use nonlinear nonautonomous differential equations within metapopulation frameworks and
individual based models to model the honeybee population with spatial scales ranging from the individual
level, the colony level, to the regional level and timescale spanning from seconds, days, and months.
Rigorous mathematics will be integrated with extensive field and laboratory data to explore the contributing
factors to the mysterious and dramatic loss of honeybees. The PIs have an established collaboration record,
and represent a strong team effort with individual backgrounds in mathematics, behavioral ecology,
apiculture and epidemiology.
Broader Impacts: This research lives at the intersection of epidemiology, life sciences and applied
mathematics. Our modeling framework provides not only a powerful system for examining multifactorial
impacts on the honeybee colony system but also a great opportunity to explore how behavior, epidemiology
and nutritional ecology coevolve within complex systems in general. Our research can provide a basis for
new strategies for controlling Varroa and reducing colony losses for beekeepers, and benefit land managers.
A template integrating interdisciplinary learning for students in epidemiology, biology and applied
mathematics will be developed through shared research projects at the undergraduate and/or graduate level.
Summer research projects will also be connected to the Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute
directed by Professor Castillo-Chavez, providing underrepresented minority students with a first-hand
research experience. Suitable research projects will be integrated into a new undergraduate mathematical
biology course that becomes a regular feature that contributes to newly launched Applied Mathematics B.S.
Program at ASU. Our methods and results will be disseminated through online video lectures and in-person
workshops that can be made available to the scientific community including policy makers and beekeepers.
The funds are requested to partially support minority graduate students.
Effective start/end date9/1/178/31/21


  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $290,436.00


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